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In the six weeks that D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke has been hospitalized his council colleagues have followed a Don’t Tell/Won’t Ask policy: Don’t tell us when Clarke is coming back, and we won’t ask.

For a change, councilmembers are punched in, doing the people’s work, and moving on issues that actually affect their constituents: the budget, police protection, and proposals to revitalize the city. But D.C.’s lawmakers seem to have a superstitious belief that any discussion of Clarke will bring him back to the dais, ending the period of political harmony under interim chair Charlene Drew Jarvis. Clarke has become the One Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken.

Inquiries about the chairman’s health don’t get too far anyway: It’s been easier to find out about Boris Yeltsin’s status than the council chair’s. Clarke’s family has been incredibly secretive, ensuring that a mere dribble of information about the chairman’s stay at Georgetown University Hospital reaches the public. But regardless of the chairman’s prognosis, councilmembers aren’t counting the days until they can return to the bickering and internal strife that paralyzed the council after Clarke regained the chairmanship in September 1993. After his ascension, sessions became endlessly embarrassing family feuds played out before a minuscule cable TV audience.

Instead of pining for its infirm chairman, the council is rushing to heap praise on Jarvis—a welcome change in the lackluster 17-year career of the Ward 4 councilmember. For Jarvis, kind words from colleagues pop up as infrequently as new businesses on decrepit Georgia Avenue in her ward.

Even though Jarvis has the trains running on time, the council’s newfound harmony and relevance are not likely to last long. Clarke’s doctors—who, astonishingly, have failed to diagnose his illness after more than a month’s hospitalization—have not ruled out his return, but chairman wannabes are already jockeying for pole position in a special election that could take place later this year.

“We do have to start thinking about this at some point, and probably sooner than later,” said Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith, the only member of the council willing to run the risk of sounding ghoulish by discussing the probability of replacing Clarke while his condition remains unknown.

“Dave Clarke and I have been friends for a long time, and I’m praying for his return. But I have to admit that the longer he stays away, the less likely it is,” the four-term councilmember said in an interview this week. “There’s a point at which a prolonged absence becomes a vacancy.”

Although Smith said that point will come at the end of February, his assault on the chairmanship is already well into Phase 1. With his obvious designs on the seat, Smith’s efforts are putting pressure on At-Large Councilmember Linda Cropp to start lining up her support for a run at the chairmanship before Smith gets too far out ahead. But the cautious Cropp is not as eager as Smith to get her campaign under way and seems resentful of Smith’s political moves. Cropp supporters blame Smith for reports that she was miffed when Clarke picked Jarvis over her to be interim chair in his absence.

“I have been absolutely nothing but supportive of Charlene. She is doing a tremendous job,” says Cropp.

“Dave is sick and he ought to be given an opportunity to heal,” she adds. “How much longer? I don’t know. But I’m not ready to say, ‘Throw him out.’”

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Cropp and Smith, however, have a vested interest in pushing Clarke out of his chair before his term expires in 1998. Both aspirants have to run for re-election in 1998 and would have to give up safe council seats to compete for the chairmanship. If Clarke’s illness forces a special election this year to choose a successor to serve out the remainder of Clarke’s term, Smith and Cropp won’t have to risk anything to run.

Smith’s emergence as a contender for the city’s second-most powerful post may seem an abrupt departure from a council career spent mostly in the dugout. Smith’s only flirtation with high-profile politics came in the mid-1980s, when he led an effort to bring major-league baseball back to D.C. Has anyone heard the cry, “Play ball!” around here lately?

Jarvis is not likely to hold onto the one position that has earned her plaudits. If Clarke’s mystery illness lingers much longer, public pressure will mount to declare the chairmanship vacant. A special election will follow. The city’s charter requires that once Clarke steps down, one of the four at-large councilmembers must be appointed acting chair until the special election takes place.

At-Large Statehood Party Councilmember Hilda Mason is having enough trouble keeping track of time, let alone reigning over 12 quibbling lawmakers. The nine Democrats on the council are not about to turn it over to At-Large Republican Councilmember Carol Schwartz. And At-Large Councilmember-cum-mayoral-pretender Harold Brazil is anathema among his colleagues. That leaves Cropp as the only choice for acting chair, a position that would compromise her ability to run for the elected post because she would be so busy keeping the council on track.

At first blush, Jarvis, who has tried to ditch her Ward 4 job by running for mayor twice and council chair once, would appear a natural candidate to contend for the chairmanship. Last July, however, she took a six-figure job as president of tiny Southeastern University, a 630-student business school in Southwest. Jarvis claims enrollment has increased by 37 percent in the seven months she has been in charge of the school.

Since the charter prohibits the elected council chair to hold outside employment, Jarvis would have to choose between her high-paying Southeastern post and a four-year term at the head of the council dais.

“It’s a no-brainer for her, I’m sure,” says Smith.

Jarvis insists she is not interested in running for council chair, or mayor. “I think that’s why there’s harmony on the council, because my colleagues know I’m not running for another office,” she says.

With Jarvis at the helm, the council has suddenly re-emerged as a player in D.C. politics. Legislation is getting passed, council sessions are shorter and more productive, and councilmembers say they feel “energized” by Jarvis’ leadership. She has the council responding quickly to breaking developments, such as President Bill Clinton’s ill-conceived plan to save the city, and is even coming up with innovative solutions.

For instance, Jarvis is devising legislation to give the council power to fire agency heads hired by the mayor—a prerogative now owned by the D.C. financial control board. The proposal is a savvy way of heading off the move toward a city manager form of government in the District, which nearly all councilmembers oppose.

More importantly to many of her colleagues, Jarvis conducts council meetings with a deft gavel, skillfully avoiding the acrimony and ad nauseum argument that Clarke’s brand of leadership stirred up. When Brazil launched into one of his typical self-serving soliloquies over a legislative point during the Jan. 14, session, Jarvis sat patiently and then cut off the minifilibuster at the first opening with a polite, “Thank you, Mr. Brazil.”

Before Brazil could regain his wind, Jarvis had moved on to the next speaker.

With Clarke in charge, these exchanges with Brazil turned into excruciating, drawn-out verbal battles between the bitter rivals that left other councilmembers squirming uncomfortably in their chairs and waiting for the two men to get over it.

Now, these councilmembers are savoring the harmony of the Jarvis era, a perk they can put on the same shelf with eight-week summer vacations, $80,000 annual salaries, and vanity license plates.

LL’S BARRY BUDGET PRIMER

At the start of last Monday’s round of FY 1998 budget briefings, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. told reporters Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams, City Administrator Michael Rogers, and “the finance people write financese. I need some politicalese to round it [the budget] out.”

That was the closest Barry came to uttering the truth all day.

Coming on top of his “Day of Dialogue” and his defense of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), Barry’s budget for next year is but the latest sign that he is gunning for another term in 1998.

Despite objections from Williams and “the finance people,” Barry wants to renegotiate part of the District’s $3.5-billion debt even though the city is closer to its debt ceiling than Joe Waldholtz. The gimmick is classic election-year politics: It enables him to pose as a budget balancer while avoiding the cuts that cost him votes.

The plan would give Barry $10 million to spend on economic development—an outlay that would go straight to Wards 7 and 8 and the part of Ward 6 east of the Anacostia River. Hizzoner claims that this area deserves all the money because it is the city’s most economically depressed and has the highest unemployment rates.

It also happens to be the mayor’s political base.

Barry’s budget does not spend a dime on downtown D.C., the focus of an ongoing effort to bring businesses and consumers back to the central city. That part of the city, you see, lies in Ward 2, and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans is already running hard for mayor in 1998.

Before the start of his budget briefing, Barry asked WUSA Channel 9 reporter Bruce Johnson, “Did you interview Jack Evans? What did he say?”

Despite the mayor’s promise last summer to revitalize Georgia Avenue, there’s no money in his budget plan for that project, nor for the much-discussed development of the New York Avenue corridor.

Barry boasts that his new plan would balance the budget in FY 1998, one year ahead of the schedule set by the control board. However, you budget wonks may notice that the Barry plan’s fine print projects a deficit for FY 1999, which begins a few weeks after the crucial September 1998 mayoral primary.

But by balancing the FY 1998 budget—through gimmicks rather than “blood in the streets,” as Barry put it Monday—Barry meets the Clinton White House requirement that the D.C. budget be in balance before the feds take over some of the city’s costliest programs. So Barry doesn’t expect to have to cut spending in 1999, the first year of his next term, because the feds will have come to the rescue by then. Who says the mayor doesn’t have a plan for the future?

Barry’s Social Agenda

City workers are used to seeing their chief executive, Mayor Barry, poke his head into their offices for impromptu visits. On such occasions, Hizzoner follows a rigid protocol: He listens to gripes from office workers, tells them how valuable they are, and promises to fight for their jobs.

But Barry’s visit last Friday to a D.C. Mental Health Commission office seemed to be of a more personal nature. According to staffers at the Child and Youth Services central intake unit, Barry dropped in for what they called a “social call” on T’Juana Lee, a mental health employee who is reportedly 28 years old. Hizzoner was promptly told that Lee was not in the office.

Barry—who brought along his security retinue—opted to wait for Lee to return. He hovered in the office for over 15 minutes, according to staffers. She never showed up. It was a startling role reversal for Hizzoner, who has made a career of forcing others to wait for his orchestrated appearances. Several staffers say Barry popped in to patch up a rift with Lee, who announced in the office that she had been stiffed on a lunch date the day before. Barry even phoned Lee to tell her he’d be coming by, but Lee ducked out before Hizzoner rolled in. Staffers say Barry had never before visited their office.

An indignant Lee claimed she had no idea Barry had appeared at her office, but her supervisor, Ermine Moore, confirmed the visit and referred other questions to the commission’s press officer.

Office staffers are as puzzled by Lee’s relationship with the mayor as her qualifications for her position. Child and Youth Services workers say the division received a call from “higher-ups” several weeks ago that Lee would simply be showing up for work on Jan. 6. Lee’s co-workers find her unsolicited placement in their office a strange twist at a time when the city is obsessed with cutting positions in every office.

Raymone Bain, Barry’s press secretary, said the mayor was “touring the building because they have been without heat and the ceilings are falling.” When asked whether Barry had stopped in to see Lee, Bain said, “I’m not in a position to either confirm or deny this.”CP

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